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Tuesday, April 1

Navy fliers rescued after plane slides off carrier

By William H. McMichael | Navy Times

ABOARD THE CARRIER CONSTELLATION IN THE PERSIAN GULF - Two fliers ejected from an S-3B Viking aircraft that slid off a slippery flight deck Tuesday.

Both men were safely recovered by a search-and-rescue helicopter and are listed in good condition.

Officials said they suffered minor injuries - one had bruises, the other had slight burns from the ejection over eight percent of his body.

The fliers were Lt. Ben Folkers of Mason City, Iowa, the pilot, who is on his first cruise, and Lt. Matt Wilder of St. Louis, Mo., who served as tactical communication officer on the flight and is completing his second deployment.

The aircraft, a twin-engine jet used primarily to refuel other air wing jets, landed successfully but officials said it "malfunctioned'' while taxiing on the carrier's flight deck.

The plane, which is assigned to Sea Control Squadron 38, went over the port side and struck the flight deck safety netting. The two fliers then ejected, and the plane fell into the 200-foot-deep water and sank.

The Constellation launched 88 sorties overnight Monday and Tuesday morning in support of air strikes as part of the ongoing Operation Iraqi Freedom. On its current deployment, which began in San Diego on Nov. 2, air wing aircraft have made 7,350 landings on Constellation, officials said.

Capt. Mark Fox, commander of Air Wing Two, said he couldn't elaborate on exactly what happened, saying an investigative team is being assembled. Capt. John W. Miller, the ship's commanding officer, said the jet was on the center line of the landing area when the malfunction occurred.

It was raining lightly at the time of the incident. Less than an hour later, other jets could be seen sliding while taxiing on the slick, heavily used deck, and a couple had to be pushed a short distance by flight deck crews. Miller declined to comment on whether the slick deck was a factor in the incident, deferring to the investigation findings.

It was the final landing scheduled for that flight cycle.

Most of the Constellation's crew learned of the accident from a terse intercom announcement, "Plane over the port side. Man in the water.'' That began an immediate scramble of spotters to the port (left) side edge of the carrier and the control tower's port side observation decks.

It was just before sunrise Tuesday, late Monday night eastern time.

In the distance, through the dim predawn light, an SH-60F helicopter was hovering over the crash site, about to insert its rescue swimmer, Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 3rd Class Scott Wickland, 20, of Barronett, Wis.

The helicopter had spent the past three hours flying "plane guard'' - a required safety valve for just this purpose. After the Viking landed, its crew's day would be done.

"We were getting ready to land, and we were heading inbound,'' said helicopter co-pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Kennedy. "We saw a couple of explosions on the flight deck.'' The explosions, he later figured, were the two ejection seats being fired.

Wickland was lowered into the 70-degree water and swam over to the two men.

"They were both kind of in shock,'' Wickland later recalled. One flier, Wilder, was in a raft; Folkers, the more injured flier was not, he said.

Wickland hooked Folkers to the rescue hoist and Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 1st Class Evan Diaz pulled him up.

Diaz, an emergency medical technician from Central Islip, N.Y., unhooked Folkers from the rescue strap, seated him and asked him if he was OK. ``He shook his head no,'' Diaz said. After being pulled in, Wilder told Diaz he was all right. Diaz then brought Wickland up into the helicopter.

Wickland said Folkers and Wilder greeted him warmly when he swam up to them.

"It's great to see you,'' Wickland said the fliers told him. "Can't wait to get out of here."

Just 17 minutes elapsed from the time the survivors went into the water until they were brought aboard the rescue helicopter, said Kennedy, who hails from Southfield, Mich.

The gray helicopter carrying the fliers sped up along the Constellation's port side, slowed amidships, eased to the right and quickly landed.

Two white-vested medics emerged from a crowd of flight deck sailors and dashed out to the opened side door. Inside, Diaz turned to the two fliers. ``Do you want to walk?''

Both nodded yes. "I think it was a pride issue,'' said Diaz. "They wanted to walk out.''

Fox later said that both front seats in the Viking ejected simultaneously and that the plane was slightly nose down when the ejection took place. "The fact that they're alive tells me they pulled the ejection handle at the right time,'' he said.

Even as the rescue effort began, preparations continued for the next flight cycle. A swarm of helmeted deck crewmen began walking down the flight deck from amidships toward the stern, checking for debris from the incident that could foul another jet.

It was the first such rescue for all four of the helicopter crewmen. The last air mishap on the Constellation took place in August 2001, when an F-14D Tomcat and the two crewmen were lost in the Bay of Bengal, Fox said.Barely half an hour after the helicopter landed, an F-14D Tomcat roared off Catapult 3 and into the dawn sky, beginning another cycle of strike flights dominated by F/A-18 Hornets.